The - and I'm already stuck for words here. Do I say shock? Fright? Dread? Horror? - whatever it may be, of cancer has hit my family too many times. None of them are my stories to tell, so today I'm handing my blog over to the most amazing, influential woman in my life, to tell her story. A mother of four, grandmother of five and three-quarters, wife, pharmacist, cancer survivor; here's my Mum...
This story begins nearly sixteen years ago. Heading off to the GP for the necessary pap smear and breast examination. All was fine until the doctor found a lump in the left breast. (I hadn’t felt the lump myself, even though I had developed the habit of a regular self examination, having known two young women in their 30’s with this dreaded disease.)
So off to a specialist for a mammogram and then a biopsy of said lump. “No worries” was my whole attitude. No history of this in my family and, at 45 years old, I had every expectation that all would be well. And it was - all the tests showed a benign lump. Good - on with things! With four children, ranging from a 21 year-old son trying to find his feet in an adult world, two teenage daughters in high school and the baby of the family just starting kindergarten, I was far too busy to worry.
For a few months anyway. Six months went by, and I became increasingly nervous about the lump. I had no changes but wanted to remove it out of my breast and out of my life.
So, it was off to hospital for this procedure, with everyone on track for Mum to be home that evening and life to go on as before.
Picture this then - coming out of the anaesthetic, the most severe nausea, specialist leaning over me and the unimaginable words: “There’s a problem. The lump is malignant. You’ll have a week to decide whether to have a mastectomy or a lumpectomy". Then leaving me to lie there in the recovery room, having assured me this was no mistake - he had the right woman. I was left to the nursing staff, who were so busy trying to settle my nausea that no-one told me why my husband wasn't there to share this. (I later found that his mobile phone was out of range and the doctor couldn’t wait any longer.)
Finally my husband came in and many tears were shed by us both. Reassuring each other that it would work out fine, he went off to organise my discharge and get me home.
To this day, I don’t know how he managed to tell our three older children and ring my parents and his, and brothers and sisters as well. Somehow he did, finding the strength to deal with it all while I put myself to bed, still feeling that this was a nightmare and I would wake up and find all was normal.
After a visit to the doctor a few days later, I found that if I had the lumpectomy, then I would need a course of radiotherapy to ensure that no malignant cells were missed.
Surprisingly, I made my decision quite quickly - and it HAD to be MY decision entirely. I knew that radiotherapy has lots of potential adverse effects, and really didn’t want to put myself (or the family) through that. Also, I was very nervous of the very small risk of a lumpectomy and subsequent treatments missing rogue cells, and the cancer rearing its ugly self elsewhere, so I decided to have a full mastectomy.
A week later, there I am with bandages over where my left breast used to be.
All my family were amazing - so positive and supportive. I didn’t allow myself to ponder the future (I can be a bit of an ostrich about unpleasant things!).
Then the long road to recovery - and I was one of the lucky ones. There was no spread into the surrounding tissues or into the lymph nodes. Fantastic! Though taking Tamoxifen every day for five years was a pain, and the regular checkups that are now annual events and no longer feared as once they were, are a further reminder of my blessings.
All this was fifteen and a half years ago - for a few years, every ache and pain brought the fear - is it cancer? - but gradually that fear has gone. And I have trouble sometimes remembering how long ago this all happened.
I’ve never wanted to undergo the risks of further surgery to have a new breast. And the scar on my chest - when I take any notice at all - serves as a reminder of how very lucky I am and how blessed in my husband and children. And that I’m here to love all of them and my wonderful grandchildren (five of them and number six nearly here!).
Thanks Mum. Love you.
A reminder to all women to check regularly for lumps. Read here for more information about when and how.